As a ‘disabled’ woman I am thrust outside the garden gate. Sitting quietly, I peer through the foliage into that fluorescent place, that world of lithe potency, but anxious performativity, that I once inhabited.
– Jessica Webster
Jessica Webster: Wisteria – Jessica Webster’s second solo exhibition at Goodman Gallery – straddles personal and critical reflections on the category ‘white woman’ as the term manifests in a South African context.
The title of the exhibition refers to the non-indigenous garden flower often planted along boundary walls and garden gates in South Africa as a borrowed expression of beauty from the European garden. Phonically, it evokes the term ‘hysteria’, which Freud associated with deep psychological repression and neurosis in Western women. For Webster, ‘stereotypes assigned to the white woman as both delicate victim and threatening provocateur have resulted in the containment of such figures to walled-in, protected settings throughout history, such as the safe South African suburban garden’.
As a contemporary painter, Webster notes that this dynamic manifests in the European history of painting. In her new body of work, she references early European Modernist painting in which the white woman features as an ethereal complement to the sanctified garden scene. Working with an awareness of the politicised South African garden space, Webster references the formal qualities of surface and composition specific to Claude Monet and Jean-Édouard Vuillard’s garden images through which she explores the reproduction of the ‘white woman’ as painterly surface.
The artist’s creative process reflects her conceptual thrust. In the paintings on show, she begins with found photographs that capture generic South African suburban scenes, such as pools and lawns, and paints similar imagery over them using oil paint and wax – so that painting and photograph often seem to flow into each other. Applied very thickly in areas while scraped away in others, the painted imagery becomes abstract, pointing to the highly constructed nature of the white woman stereotype.
For Webster, this stereotype can be seen as either the cause or effect of a threat: ‘If a white woman is contained by these flowery surfaces, is it because she is a vulnerable object, or do these symbols serve as a defence against what she may really represent?’ The material handling of the paint and the palimpsestic approach to photography and painting create a sense both of vulnerability and threat: the paintings shimmer, but also descend into visceral and dark aspects.
Wisteria continues the thread of critical self-engagement that characterised Webster’s previous solo show, Murderer (2015), with her own complicity in the greater macrocosm of violence in South Africa. The painted surface raises a question of where this violence comes from: ‘Is violence being done to these precious and sanctified spaces of the white female, or is violence an inherent part of how these spaces exclude others?’ she asks.
Jessica Webster is in the process of completing a PhD in the Philosophy of Painting at the University of the Witwatersrand, Johannesburg. In 2006, she survived an act of extreme violence in a shooting that left her paralysed from the waist down. Her practice has since evolved, guided by a heightened sensitivity to painful but moving life experiences that can impair but also empower, by offering an alternative perspective on the everyday. In 2015, Webster was awarded the Oppenheimer Memorial Trust as well as the Mellon Postgraduate Mentoring Programme award for her work in painting and academia. Her work is in private and public collections, such as the Johannesburg Art Gallery and MTN Collections. Webster was born on the East Rand in 1981, and raised on the mines of the Free State and in Benoni.